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As Internet TV Aims at Niche Audiences, the Slivercast Is Born



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The transformation of broadcast video content from Cable to Internet has huge and long lasting repercussions for the entire media industry. When TV is broadcast over IP, any mobile internet device becomes a mobile TV terminal. As discussed in the prior post, the ultimate success of mobile TV is dependent on resolving the visualization and experience bottleneck represented by the ubiquitous 2" LCD screen.


As Internet TV Aims at Niche Audiences, the Slivercast Is Born

By SAUL HANSELL
Published: March 12, 2006

In the last six months, major media companies have received much attention for starting to move their own programming online, whether downloads for video iPods or streaming programs that can be watched over high-speed Internet connections.

Perhaps more interesting — and, arguably, more important — are the thousands of producers whose programming would never make it into prime time but who have very dedicated small audiences. It's a phenomenon that could be called slivercasting.

In 2004, Wired magazine popularized the phrase "the long tail" to refer to the large number of specialized offerings that in themselves appeal to a small number of people, but cumulatively represent a large market that can be easily aggregated on the Internet. Plotted on a graph along with best sellers, these specialized products trail off like a long tail that never reaches zero.

Indeed, the Internet's ability to offer an almost infinite selection is part of what makes it so appealing: people can find things that don't sell well enough to warrant shelf space in a neighborhood music store or video rental shop — think of the obscure books on Amazon.com. The ease of digital video production and the ubiquity of high-speed Internet connections are sending the long tail of video into the living rooms of the world, live and in color.

"The next wave of media is to unleash the power of serving people's special interests," said John Hendricks, the chief executive of Discovery Communications, which is developing a series of specialized video services. "Every time I walk into a Borders bookstore, I spend a lot of time looking at the magazine rack — because staring at you are all the passions of America. The bride who is about to get married, there is a magazine for her. And for the person who is a little older, there are wonderful travel and leisure magazines."

NEARLY 15 years ago, when the advent of digital cable offered the possibility of 500 channels, many people were skeptical that there would be enough programs to fill them. But then came specialized broadcasters — including the Speed Channel (for auto racing fans), the Military Channel and Home and Garden Television — and now cable and satellite systems are largely full.

"It has become almost impossible for a channel to increase its distribution the old way," said Lauren Zalaznick, the president of Bravo and Trio, two cable channels owned by NBC Universal. "To get distribution it takes a lot of effort and negotiation. You have to give up a lot to get very little."

While advertising on small video sites has been sporadic so far, many companies, including Roo and NarrowStep, say they see an opportunity to match video commercials to specialized audiences, as Google does with Internet searches and Web pages.

"The real analogy here is not with television but with magazine publishing," said Mr. Jones of NarrowStep. "Narrow publications can get very high rates."

Looming over all of the smaller companies that distribute specialized video is the question of Google's ultimate role. Google's early video service was criticized as hard to use, but it is nonetheless attracting a lot of programming from major networks as well as independents — and of course, it has a huge traffic flow that no independent site can match. Google allows programmers to offer video free, to rent it or to sell copies that viewers download to their computers; Google gets a commission for videos that are sold and rented. Eventually, it plans to sell advertising on some videos as well, sharing the revenue with the producers.

Mr. Quist, for one, says he plans to deal with Google as a partner rather than as a competitor by making much of the TotalVid's accumulated content available for rent through Google Video. Some producers who license programs to TotalVid can cut out the middleman, of course, and deal with Google directly. Mr. Quist said he hoped to help these producers market their programming on Google as well as on Apple's iTunes and other online video stores.

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